(CN) - With the return of a drug that once sparked a global ban and lyrical condemnation by Billy Joel, a New Jersey union claims in a federal complaint that thalidomide's maker is reaping billions because of "monopoly power."
Originally marketed to ease morning sickness in pregnant women, thalidomide was pulled from the shelves in the 1960s for its association with fetal deformities and birth defects. The drug killed roughly 2,000 children and left more than 10,000 others with serious defects, such as limbs that presented as stumps.
Billy Joel listed "children of thalidomide" in the 1989 hit "We Didn't Start the Fire" among the unfortunate headlines of his lifetime.
But the drug's terrible side effects are ancient history to the union that sued the drug's patent holder, Celgene Corp., in New Jersey on Friday.
Filed on behalf of "hundreds of thousand, if not millions, of consumers, and thousands of third-party payors," International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craft Workers accuses Celgene of illegally elbowing out competition.
Members of the union's health fund and other patients "would have saved millions of dollars" if Celgene's products had generic alternatives, the lawsuit alleges.
Celgene initially proposed reviving thalidomide as an anti-leprosy treatment when it convinced the Food and Drug Administration to lift the ban on the drug in 1998.
Today, the Summit, N.J.-based company mainly markets thalidomide to treat multiple myeloma, a rare cancer that attacks blood plasma. The disease afflicts 6.1 in 100,000 globally every year, according to recent estimates from the National Cancer Institute.
Celgene has made $20.9 billion selling the drug under the name Thalidomid, and its analogue under the name Revlimid, according to the complaint.
"In order to delay the onset of generic competition and squeeze more multi-billion dollar years out of these products, Celgene engaged in a multi-faceted scheme to maintain its monopoly and unlawfully interfere with competitors' efforts to enter the market with generic versions of Thalomid or Revlimid," the complaint states.
The company maintains its "monopoly power" by exploiting FDA regulation to "indefinitely postpone" alternatives, obtaining fraudulent patents and filing "sham litigation" towards its competitors, the union says.
This is not the first time Celgene has faced similar allegations over thalidomide.
Lannett Co., a Philadelphia-based generic drug maker, sued Celgene in the City of Brotherly Love in 2008.
The case ended with a settlement on undisclosed terms after a federal judge refused to toss an earlier antitrust suit.
The union seeks treble damages and an injunction against the company for monopolization, attempted monopolization, unjust enrichment, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and violation of the Sherman Act.
It is represented by Frank Schirripa of the frim Hach Rose Schirripa & Cheverie LLP.
Celgene's vice president of corporate affairs Brian Gill said in an email that the company is reviewing the complaint.
"We intend to vigorously defend this action," he added.
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